CEDAR LAKE CONTEMPORARY BALLET, AMERICA’S EURO ZONE OUTPOST

There were three clear choreographic vantage points on view for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s program for UCLAlive on Friday evening. Regina van Berkel’s Simply Marvel gave us some full throttle dance with specific linkages to music both old and new. It was spectacularly costumed (also Berkel) and offered an evolving sense of direction from the meandering formlessness of the opening, set to a solo piano (Theo Verbey), to the well-arranged trios and duos of the concluding sections which were set to Paganini’s virtuosic variations on an operatic theme. Closing the program was Alexander Ekman’s breezy dance theater piece, Hubbub, a sometimes frantic send up of dancers and the meaning behind choreography. It was genuinely funny, and with an excess of props and shifting lighting (Jim French), it was also visually delightful, but not particularly revelatory. Sandwiched in the middle was Crystal Pite’s urgent and industrial looking, Grace Engine, which promised much in the way of cinematic connection and narrative but delivered little.
Cedar Lake, under Artistic Director, Benoit-Swan Pouffe, makes the most of scouring Europe for trend-setting dancemakers and bringing them to New York to work with the company’s sixteen, exceptional dancers, all of whom have worked in Europe. Their range on Friday showed them to be wildly capable and artistically flexible. A mix of types and ethnicities, they make you want to alter Béjart’s crucial label and call them a ballet for the 21st century. They also have, thanks to the Walton family, who funds the company, probably the best dance jobs in America.
 
As an outpost of European modernism in New York, Cedar Lake, now closing in on its tenth year, has been a hit. But beneath all that cool the prototypes are never far away. Grace Engine, with its suited, unisex look, and harsh lighting was visually and stylistically too familiar to claim to be a new. It reminded me of works by Joe Goode and Ohad Naharin. Hubbub (not exactly a word with European resonance) obviously had some heavy indebtedness to Pina Bausch in its style, textual additions, and ensemble improvisations. And Simply Marvel had the glow of Kylían all over it. Of all the works on the Friday evening program it survived comparison the most effectively, partly for its strikingly odd use of the Paganini variations for solo violin, but also for Berkel’s skill in continuing to focus and reshape the work into patterns as it progressed. It was the only work on the program in which the women danced on point. Simply Marvel could grow on you with repeated exposure, where once through for Hubbub and Grace Engine were plenty.
 
Both those works had their moments, however. At the heart of Hubbub was a smashing duet danced by Nickemil Concepcion and Harumi Terayama. A recorded text of their voices comments on the process of dancing together as they describe both the emotional and mundane moments grappling with a complex piece of choreography, And in Grace Engine, the shoulder hunching gestures, vocalizations, and contorted facial expressions became powerful metaphors for its phalanx of physically distressed participants.
 
The music for the evening ranged wide and far. Hubbub used a wordy, recorded text punctuated with Xavier Cugat and a concluding Chopin nocturne. Grace Engine used recorded trains and other ambient sounds composed by Owen Belton in an electronic score. Simply Marvel made unexpected sense out of the puffery of show-off violin playing and a minimalist piano score that allowed for a long slow motion development introducing the dancers. It was all about exotic and unlikely choices.
 
(Replacing Grace Engine and Hubbub on the Saturday program were Tuplet by Ekman and Violet Kid by Hofesh Shechter.)

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